Deepavali, also called Diwali (Hindi for “row of lights”), is a four to five day Hindu festival that is celebrated in India and in other lands where Hindus live, including Guyana.
Another common name for Deepavali is “the Festival of Lights.” Deepavali occurs on the 15th of the Hindu month of Kartika, which puts it in the range of later October to early November on the Gregorian Calendar. Its date is set based on its being the shortest day of the year, which plays into the theme of light overcoming darkness.
The mythological background of Deepavali concerns the story of Krishna defeating his rival Narakasura in deadly battle and then arriving in the city of Madura by the light of the new moon. The central figure that is worshipped by Hindus on Deepavali, however, is Lakshmi, the goddess of light and prosperity. Devotees pray to her on this day, seeking both spiritual and physical blessings. The full story behind Deepavali is found in the Hindu holy book called “the Ramayana,” which is frequently read aloud at Deepavali celebrations.
Deepavali came to be observed in Guyana because large numbers of Indian laborers arrived during colonial times to fill the void left after slavery was outlawed in the British Empire. Hindus today make up a third of Guyana’s nearly eight hundred thousand people, and Deepavali is an official public holiday and a major tourist attraction year after year.
Some Guyanese Deepavali traditions include:
- Giving out traditional Indian sweets, which highlights the importance of sharing good things with others and exchanging greeting cards to express good will towards others.
- Wearing new clothes, particularly to Deepavali festivals, to symbolize “a healthy soul inside of a healthy body.”
- Cleaning out one’s house and then keeping it well lit both inside and outside, which is meant to light the pathway that the goddess Lakshmi must travel to visit that particular home.
- Chanting Deepavali prayers as a family at dusk before lighting the first diya, which is a small clay lamp. Also, attending services at the local Hindu temple, fasting, and avoiding alcohol.
- Designing rangolis on the floor. Ranglolis are colorful patterns made of colored rice, flour, sand, or flower petals. Women normally design them, and patterns are sometimes passed down from generation to generation.
Those visiting Guyana during Deepavali festivities may wish to take part in the following activities:
- Attend the Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha festival. There are motorcades and floats decked out with lights that move down the roads in processions, while crowds gather to get a close-up look at the beautifully decorated vehicles and the depictions of the Hindu pantheon that they often carry. This event has been regularly held in Georgetown since 1974.
- Walk through local neighbourhoods to view the homes lit up with traditional Hindu lamps. Public buildings as well will be covered in lights, and you will see both clay oil lamps and modern electric lights being used. In some locations, bamboo frames hold light displays, and you may even wish to visit the family businesses in Berbice and Wakenaam where many of the traditional lamps are manufactured.
- Get competitive or let you children do so. There are rangoli competitions, best-dressed contests, firecracker display contests, musical chairs and other kids’ games, and other competitions to join in. You may not know Hindi, but if you do, you can also compete in an “antakshari,” which is a Hindi singing contest based on songs found in movies.
- Take a trip to the Guyana Zoo. After the Deepavali events are over, there is no reason not to see some of the other sights of Guyana. Prime among Georgetown attractions is the Guyana Zoo, where you can admire harpy eagles, one of the largest eagle species on the planet, West Indian manatees, also called “sea cows,” and other local species.
Visiting Guyana any time of year is an amazing experience, but touring this unique land during Deepavali will acquaint you with its Hindu heritage as well as give you a chance to explore other attractions.